At the same time that many Iowa teens are being introduced to 3-D printing technology at their schools, the technology is beginning to transform the state’s advanced manufacturing industry.  

The newest 3-D printing technologies allow manufacturers to significantly shorten the design and testing process, enabling the “rapid prototyping” of new designs from a computer screen to a three-dimensional object that engineers can work with the same day. 

Companies also are beginning to consider 3-D printing to produce finished parts and products on demand, particularly as the types of materials that can be used in the process are expanding from plastics to metals. Turning out small quantities of highly complex customized parts on demand with 3-D printers could have an economic impact of up to $200 billion a year by 2025, according to research firm McKinsey & Co. 

Rather than molding or machining materials, 3-D printing works by adding material through various processes. That can greatly reduce waste and cut expenses in the manufacturing process, particularly when a company needs to make and test numerous rounds of prototype parts or devices. Although 3-D printing technology was pioneered in the 1970s, until just a few years ago it still held a relatively narrow niche in product design and manufacturing. Today, increased capabilities of 3-D printers are creating new opportunities for manufacturers throughout the state. 

Hubs of 3-D printing capability are emerging across Iowa. One of the largest industrial 3-D printers in the nation began operating last month in Waterloo at the Cedar Valley TechWorks. The $1.5 million machine, funded through a collaboration of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber, provides new capabilities for Iowa manufacturers to cost-effectively develop prototypes for research and development efforts. 

In Central Iowa, Emerson Process Management in Marshalltown has begun researching the feasibility of building a large-scale facility capable of turning out sophisticated finished parts using 3-D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing. 

Greater Des Moines businesses also are finding it easier to access 3-D printer technology. In 2012, an Iowa-based 3-D printer dealer, Moss Enterprises, relocated its headquarters from the Cedar Rapids area to Johnston. With the move, Moss opened a retail showroom where businesses can preview and test some of the latest 3-D printer technology available. 

The technology now has ROI

The 3-D printing industry in the United States has seen tremendous growth in the past several years, as more companies find they can generate a positive return on investment from the machines. 

“That’s been the missing connection for years,” said Dan Sorenson, industrial sales manager with Moss Enterprises. “It was really new and cool, but you couldn’t connect the dots on how to have a return on investment. There’s definitely a buzz right now in the manufacturing world.” 

Currently a $2.2 billion industry, the global market for 3-D printing products and services is expected to reach sales of $6 billion worldwide, according to Wohlers Associates Inc., an independent consulting firm that tracks the industry. 

Visitors to the Moss showroom in Johnston can see a few of the latest models of 3-D printers, which range in cost from about $2,500 for one suitable for a high school classroom to $50,000 to $100,000 or more for a high-end industrial printer. 

The company also has dozens of examples of the products the printers can turn out, which can range from detailed artwork to complex pump assemblies for industrial clients. Moss sells 3-D printers to the educational market as well as to manufacturing companies in eight Midwestern states. 
Advancements in 3-D printing that have made it possible to produce large prototypes of intricate working parts are probably the most eye-catching for small manufacturers, Sorenson said. 

The sophisticated machines can turn out complete working assemblies of complex components, with no assembly required and in a full array of colors.   

As companies become more vested in using the technology, they’re more likely to want to bring 3-D printing capabilities in-house, said Grant Thies, Moss’ president. Companies can easily spend thousands of dollars per cubic inch for a prototype part printed by a third-party company, he said. 

“We’re seeing more and more people saying, ‘We’re tired of paying someone else to make our prototype,’” Thies said. “They’re tired of spending that kind of money.”  

Making connections

Small manufacturers can benefit greatly from adopting 3-D printing technology, said Chris Hill, a consultant with the Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS), a program of Iowa State University Extension and the ISU College of Engineering. Prior to joining CIRAS, Hill led new product development programs for appliance manufacturer Electrolux, and he has also worked in the aerospace industry. 

One of Hill’s goals: expose more small manufacturing companies to various 3-D printing methods and the benefits and potential uses.  

“Many of these smaller manufacturers have not had as much exposure to some of the technologies out there; they’re very focused on day-to-day operations,” he said. 

Currently, the state universities and community colleges provide some of the best resources for small businesses after they’ve dipped their toe into the 3-D pool and decided they want to do more. 

“Once (companies) get past the initial ‘shoot and ship,’ they want surface finishes, waterproofing, painting,” Hill said. “We’re not in that business, nor do we want to be in that business. That’s why we refer them to (the universities).   

CIRAS is also working to connect those companies with Iowa businesses that specialize in rapid prototyping services.   

“The thing that we see, and what I’m slowly working on, is (development) of that private sector in Iowa,” Hill said. “It’s pretty thin. Companies that can provide more unique materials or secondary finishing, there aren’t many of them out there in Iowa.” 
Because many Iowa manufacturers specialize in agricultural components, a 3-D printing technique known as direct metal laser sintering, or DMLS, has particular potential for growth in Iowa for those products, which are typically more metal-based products than plastic, Hill said. Additionally, DMLS also has a lot of potential for use in the plastic injection molding process, he said. “I would see that as a great opportunity for plastic tooling houses to become much more competitive,” Hill said. “That’s a huge opportunity.” 

Companies are also beginning to explore 3-D printing processes as a means for generating spare parts on demand as a way to reduce inventory costs, he said. 

New resource

Hill said it can make sense for small companies to work with a third-party 3-D printing company to see how well the technology works for them before taking the plunge to buy one or more machines.  

“The biggest mistake I see companies make is that they don’t understand how much volume will go through these machines,” he said. Also, it’s important to understand the life cycle costs involved for maintenance and supplies. 

“I think the sheer capital costs are going to limit what small manufacturers can do,” Hill said. “I can see where companies with similar needs come together and share those expenses.” 

A significant 3-D rapid prototyping resource for businesses recently became available at the Cedar Valley TechWorks in Waterloo. The $1.5 million 3-D printer is operated by University of Northern Iowa’s Metal Casting Center, providing the capability to make solid parts that could be as large as 13 cubic feet in volume. The primary use of the printer will be for companies to rapidly produce three-dimensional molds for metal casting. 

The center can provide a significant stepping stone for companies to develop their expertise with the technology, said Jerry Thiel, the center’s director. 

“We’re taking away the risk of purchasing a million-and-a-half-dollar piece of equipment and making it available to them without the risk,” he said. The center is currently working with a half-dozen companies, ranging from a small sign manufacturer to companies the size of Deere & Co. “It’s a wide variety,” he said. “The response has been great.” 

From prototypes to working parts

Emerson, which has used 3-D printing for rapid prototyping for a number of years, is now considering a major addition in Marshalltown that could culminate in the use of the technology to make parts for finished products. The company has embarked on the research and development phase of a nearly $6 million project that could lead to the company basing a global production 3-D facility at its Marshalltown plant. 

“Emerson has been involved in additive manufacturing for quite a while in the rapid prototyping sphere,” said Adam Boyle, operations manager for additive manufacturing in Marshalltown. “I think everyone recognizes the advantages in making the manufacturing process faster, and making the products better. I think what is changing is that it’s moving from prototyping to the actual product development phase. ... The traditional limitation to prototypes is that they’re standing in for cast parts, but they can’t do the function. My part is about truly doing the prototypes to develop true testable parts.” 

In the global 3-D printing market, the use of 3-D printing for the production of parts for final products accounted for 28.3 percent of the $2.2 billion spent last year on 3-D products and services worldwide, according to report released in November by Wohlers Associates Inc., a Colorado consulting firm that tracks the industry.

One of the big advantages of 3-D printing is that it could reduce the time needed to produce complex parts from weeks to days, and in the process eliminate many supply chain and tooling challenges and costs, Boyle said. At the same time, because it takes hours to produce a single part, the number of machines needed for a production facility in Marshalltown could be “very substantial,” he said. 

Boyle said Emerson’s R&D project has attracted a lot of interest from the state universities, and the company is looking to set up some design projects with the universities. 

From a personnel perspective, additive manufacturing has the advantage of being a “lights-out operation” in which the printers can operate around the clock without the need for technicians monitoring them, said Paul Gregoire, Emerson’s vice president of global human resources. However, 3-D printing also provides the ability to locate production closer to end users, he said. Because of that, “I think it will develop new jobs and technology close to where the customers are,” he said. “You will need a new workforce for this – this is an opportunity.”

Jeweler to expand niche in 3-D design for biomedical fields

When it comes to 3-D printing, Mark Ginsberg likes to refer to himself as a “mass customizer.” 

For more than 25 years, the owner of jewelry retailer M.C. Ginsberg has operated a 3-D printing and design shop that has evolved into a boutique manufacturer specializing in biomedical equipment. 

Working from six bench spaces on the second floor of his downtown Iowa City shop, Ginsberg’s team of designers includes a biomedical engineering intern and a mechanical engineer as well as 3-D modelers. Projects range from making a 3-D model of a patient’s heart for a complex surgery to working with an inventor developing a concept for a new medical device. 

“We’ve found that’s an interesting place to insert ourself –  between the idea and proof of concept,” Ginsberg said. “We’ve found out that we can sit down and help you solve a problem, so you have something when you go to these (biomedical) companies and move forward with a little more confidence.” 

Ginsberg said his company is beginning to make connections with small and medium-sized manufacturers around the state, and averages about 20 3-D design/printing projects a month. 

“We do a lot of work for the entrepreneurial side, and we’re beginning to do a lot more work with (projects using) Small Business Innovation Research grants where they actually require a public-private partnership,” he said. “So we kind of fill a void there, without the researcher having to go to the large pharmaceutical company and give up all the rights. We’re a little easier to work with.” 

Ginsberg said his small operation produces nearly 250,000 units per year of unique 3-D printed products for clients across the country, and that he’s now looking to double his working space. 

“The one thing we don’t do – we don’t mass produce,” he said. “If anything, we are a mass customizer. Everything we produce is unique.”